- The Treasure Chest by Johann Peter Hebel, translated by John Hibberd
Libris/Penguin, 175 pp, £19.95, May 1995, ISBN 0 14 044639 7
It is important not to misinterpret what the disgruntled hero of Kafka’s ‘Investigations of a Dog’, tired of hearing about the vaunted ‘universal progress’ of the dog community, says about ‘old and strangely simple stories’:
I do not mean that earlier generations were essentially better than ours, only younger; that was their great advantage, their memory was not so overburdened as ours today, it was easier to get them to speak out, and even if nobody actually succeeded in doing that, the possibility of it was greater, and it is indeed this greater sense of possibility that moves us so deeply when we listen to those old and strangely simple stories. Here and there we catch a curiously significant phrase and we would almost like to leap to our feet, if we did not feel the weight of centuries upon us.
I suspect that, among the stories that Kafka or his Dog had in mind, were those of Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826). At all events, Kafka called Hebel’s ‘Unexpected Reunion’ the ‘most wonderful story in the world’, and the judgment does not strike one as absurd.
Hebel’s stories, or parables, first appeared in the Lutheran almanac for the grand duchy of Baden. Most German states had their own almanac or Landkalender. The Baden one, however, had fallen on evil times (it was not helped by a government edict that every household must buy it), and Hebel, as headmaster of the Karlsruhe grammar school, had taken on the task of reforming it. One of his first steps was to give it a new and snappier title – Der Rheinländische Hausfreund – and the ‘friend’ suggested by this title, with his companionable, slyly didactic, never quite predictable manner, became an essential feature of his persona as author.
Hebel was the son of a weaver and a peasant’s daughter from the Black Forest. With the help of his father’s employer, a well-to-do Swiss officer in the French Army, he was enabled to attend the Karlsruhe Gymnasium, where he trained for the Lutheran ministry, and eventually he made a distinguished career for himself in the Church, and also as a teacher. At Karlsruhe he taught Hebrew, Greek, Latin and geography; and when, in 1803, the French Army was approaching and the Margrave and his court decamped, taking with them the professor of botany and biology, Hebel had to take on those subjects too. He protested his incompetence but within a few years was being offered membership of leading German scientific academies.
By tradition, a calendar-maker was, or had to pose as, a polymath, and it was a role, as one can see, for which Hebel was excellently equipped. He was able to instruct his readers about the mechanism of cloudbursts and the medical danger of leather garters, about how to make ink and the habits of moles. (It was an instructive example in logic, he explained, that the mole, quite unjustly, was blamed for eating the roots of plants. It was true that wherever plant-roots got eaten one would find moles and molehills; but it was not the moles, but certain grubs or white worms, who ate the roots, and the moles were there to eat the grubs. This could be clearly proved from the construction of the mole’s jaw.) He instructed his readers about arithmetic and astronomy, though not astrology (the stock-in-trade of almanacs) and was a man committed to philanthropy and reason. (Some of his Bible stories were widely used in Baden schools until 1855, when it was decided that his approach was too rationalistic.)